Angela Ortmann. Photo by Jacqui Segura.
Every day, the devastation that the COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed on the hospitality industry becomes more and more stark. Millions are out of work. Small business are fighting for their lives, and the people who have spent careers taking care of others now wonder how they are going to meet their own needs — and the troubles are not just limited to those who work within the four walls of a restaurant or bar.
Angela Ortmann, aka "STL Wine Girl," (www.stlwinegirl.com)
owns one of those restaurant- and bar-adjacent business that is suffering during the pandemic. The sole proprietor of a company that does everything from special events to promotion to social media management has seen her work change overnight. Clients who are fighting for their very survival have little to nothing left over for her services, yet, as she explains, the nature of her business means she is ineligible for help.
"I'm a sole proprietorship and independent contractor, so I can't collect unemployment," Ortmann says. "There is zero extra money coming my way. I feel like I have been able to adapt, but it's terrifying because technically, what I do is considered a luxury for businesses and consumers. I feel like those of us in these peripheral services don't know what the other side of this looks like."
For Ortmann, however, the loss she is feeling is not for her own work but for that of the industry colleagues she considers to be family. It's a fellowship she's been a part of for well over a decade, following a move from St. Louis to San Francisco to go to art school. While working in the city's fine-dining restaurants, she fell in love with all things food and wine and decided to pursue a career in the industry, continuing that path after returning to town.
Here, she worked at Monarch and the Ritz-Carlton before striking out on her own as STL Wine Girl in 2009. For over a decade, she's had to hustle to build her business and adapt to changes in the industry, something she thinks will be possible when people can again feel comfortable going out in public. Still, she thinks the industry will be changed for the foreseeable future in numerous ways. From the future of fine dining to conversations about how tipped employees are compensated to basic food safety concerns on the part of the public, Ortmann envisions an industry that could look very different from what it looked like before the COVID-19 outbreak — and what could take shape has her worried.
"What I don't want to see is just chains survive," Ortmann says. "Especially in mid-sized cities like ours where there has been so much work over the last ten years to diversity beyond meat and potatoes, I don't want that to be lost. I don't want to go back to 1999 where it's Applebee's and Friday's and a handful of delivery spots. It took a long time to get to where we are, and I don't want to see us lose all that hard work. I'm constantly saying about St. Louis that I have never lived or spent time in another city that has the bond of community, camaraderie and collaboration that we do here. Everybody supports one another, and that doesn't exist in a lot of places. If people have to close, that shrinks our community. Everything has been breaking my heart right now, but it would really break to watch that diminish."
Ortmann took a break from helping her clients and friends navigate the new-COVID normal to share how she's been dealing with a life outside of restaurants and trying to stay positive during such trying times.
As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
With my business, I do about ten to fifteen different things at any given time, so absolutely everything has been turned upside down – restaurants that are media, marketing and consultation clients have been closing, or at the very least changing course, events cancelled, festivals postponed, winemaker and author trips rescheduled, etc. As a sole proprietorship, I am paid like an independent contractor, so when the projects stop, so does the income. And people like me don’t traditionally qualify for unemployment (we are still waiting to see what the stimulus packages will do) and aren’t the intended beneficiaries for many of the restaurant and hospitality funds. While my primary focus is on the now and how I can help my clients and my friends with the current scenario, I also have to look to the coming months and the potential massive changes that are coming to our industry as a whole. My business could look completely different on the other side of this. I don’t really know for sure yet, but I have to be prepared, and I have to have a game plan. Much of my career has been spent adapting to the needs and trends of both the industry and my personal life, so this is another curve in the road. I am relying on my perseverance, creativity and willingness to “fly by the seat of my pants” to help guide me through!
What do you miss most about your job?
It is literally my job to be out and about, eating, drinking and talking about all things food, drinks, restaurant and hospitality. I miss every aspect — the amazing foods, the creative drinks, the beautiful wines, the incredible people, the inviting atmospheres, the hustle and bustle, all of it. I survive and thrive off the heartbeat of this industry, and watching it come to such a halt is a shock to the system I could have never prepared for.
What do you miss least?
Managing social media for restaurants can be such a fun, creative and rewarding experience, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t come with the regular challenges of having to handle some of the nasty comments and messages that come with the territory. And while it would be great to say that people have chilled on the negative reviews and notes during such a stressful time, it’s not 100 percent true. But it has slowed A LOT. All we can do is ask for patience and attempt to rectify any situation that we can. While we of course want to take care of any guest that is unhappy, it is difficult not to wonder if those same people are taking the time to think about how well they are working under this pressure, how quickly and efficiently they would be able to pivot their business model, and what it is like to be under the public microscope for everything you do.
What is one thing you make sure you do every day to maintain a sense of normalcy?
It may sound silly, but for a bunch of highly extroverted servers, sommeliers, bartenders, cooks and other hospitality/restaurant folks who are used to being around hundreds of people a day, the Houseparty app has been quite helpful. You get six to eight of us on there, all crazy and cooped up from quarantine, drinks in hand, talking loud (and over one another), you’d swear we were all just back sitting around the bar together like usual. Some people have even started playing games over the video, like darts. It is as close to the late night bar fun of the past as we can get for now, and we are loving it.
What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
I think I have done the opposite. I have strangely fallen into a monotonous habit of eating basically the same foods every day. I don’t know if this is my version of maintaining some sort of control, but it is honestly freaking me out. Send help.
What are the three things you’ve made sure you don’t want to run out of, other than toilet paper?
A wine girl never runs out of wine, so I will say that coffee, chocolate and hot sauce are non-negotiable staples for every grocery order.
You have to be quarantined with three people. Who would you pick?
Jose Andres, Tina Fey, Janelle Monae — it would be an epic dance party.
Once COVID-19 is no longer a threat and people are allowed to go back out and about, what’s the first thing you’ll do?
You will find me where I feel most at home, at the bar at Mai Lee, bellied up in my little “cubby” against the wall. It is my favorite workspace at my favorite restaurant where I am always guaranteed to see no less than fifteen to twenty industry friends wander in over the course of a couple of hours. Eating and drinking my favorite things with a consistent stream of friends and “framily” that I can hug, cheers to, and laugh with, all while witnessing the finest example of hospitality in this city.
What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people are allowed to return to normal activity levels?
I honestly believe that curbside and delivery are going to remain essential staples to the restaurant repertoire even as we move toward reopening the dining rooms and bars. It is going to take time for the public as a whole to get totally comfortable in crowds again. But, as we can see from the amount of carryout now, people very much want to eat the food from their favorite spots, even if it’s a bit of an altered experience. What I would like to see is a change in the delivery app system; so many guests do not realize that those companies are taking up to 30 percent of the overall cost (not just delivery fee) and the restaurants are often losing money in the deal.
What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
The same thing that gives me hope and happiness in the highest of highs and the lowest of lows — the true community spirit and love of the St. Louis food and beverage industry. Everyone still coming together to take care of one another while it is taking everything they’ve got to try and save themselves. We are seeing a lot of terrible things right now, but I am filled with so much joy every time I see a post or photo of people taking care of people in this business. It is a truly special thing that none of us take for granted.
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